Well Fed-Ex Geese

With elbows resting on a rustic windowsill on a farm in France’s Dordogne, I lost track of time watching Denis grab an endless line of geese one at a time in a kind of peaceful, mesmerizing trance, filling them with corn. Like his father and his father and his father, Denis spends five hours a day, every day, all year long sitting in a barn on a rolling stool with a machine that looks like a giant vacuum cleaner filled with corn, surrounded by geese.

He rhythmically grabs a goose by the neck, pulls him under his leg and stretches him up, sliding the tube down to the belly and fills it with corn. He pulls the trigger to squirt the corn, slowly slides the tube up the neck and out, holds the beak shut for a few seconds, lets that goose go and grabs the next.

When I told friends we planned to film geese being force-fed — the traditional way they fatten the livers to make foie gras, the prized delicacy in France’s Dordogne region — many expressed disgust and even thought I was wrong to show it on TV. There are actually people who want to boycott French foie gras for what they consider inhumane treatment of the geese. That’s why I was on Denis’ goose farm…to learn more about le gavage (as the force-feeding process is called).

Elevage du Bouyssou, a big, homey goose farm a short drive from Sarlat, is run by a Denis and Nathalie Mazet. The geese are filled with corn three times a day for the last month of their lives. They have expandable livers and no gag reflex, so the corn stays there, gradually settling as it’s digested, making room for the next visit from Denis and his corn gun.

Watching Denis work, I wondered what a life like that would be…actually knowing an endless cycle of all those geese. Did geese populate his dreams? How did it affect his relations with his wife?

While Denis squirts corn, Nathalie meets tourists — mostly French families — who show up each evening at six to see how their beloved foie gras is made. The groups stroll the idyllic farm as Nathalie explains how they raise a thousand geese a year. She stresses that the key to top-quality foie gras is happy geese raised on quality food in an unstressed environment. They need quality corn and the same feeder.

I join the group as we un-force-feed the baby geese. We stroll into the grassy back lot where the older geese run free — backlit by the low, early-evening sun, they look like a Muesli commercial (perfectly fulfilling my goose dream for the TV show).

Two geese are humping. I can’t help but notice the boy yanking feathers off the back of the girl’s head as he (I suppose) enjoys his orgasm. Nathalie said she can tell which girls are getting any action by the bald spots on the backs of their heads. There’s plenty of action, as about half the birds in the yard sported the souvenir — that fowl equivalent of wife-beating — that comes with a roll in the hay.

The Mazets sell everything but the head and feet. The down feathers only net about 30 cents a goose. The serious money is in the livers. A normal liver weighs a quarter-pound. When done with the force-feeding process, the liver weighs about two pounds. (With a thousand geese, they produce a ton of foie gras annually. Nathalie said, “Barely enough to support one family.”)

These geese actually have a special shape — like they’re waddling around with a full diaper under their feathers. Just the sight of this shape — which is a sales icon in shops throughout the Dordogne — is enough to make visiting English travelers (who come here in droves for the foie gras) salivate.

Why the Dordogne? It’s on the geese migratory path. Ages ago, locals here caught geese on their migration, livers enlarged for the long journey (like traveling with a topped-off gas tank). As French are inclined to do, they ate the innards, found them extra-tasty and decided to produce their own. Those first French foie gras farmers didn’t know it, but the technique of keeping geese and enlarging the livers for human consumption goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

Nathalie, like other French enthusiasts of le gavage, says that while their animals are calm, in no pain and are designed to take in food this manner, American farm animals are typically kept in little boxes and fed chemicals and hormones to get fat. Most battery chickens in the US live less than two months and are plumped with hormones. Her geese are free-range and live six months.

Dordogne geese live lives at least as comfy as other farm animals (that people so upset with the foie gras process have no problem eating) and are slaughtered as humanely as any non-human can expect in this food-chain existence.

Some people raise geese as a hobby. On a different farm I met Cyril, a retired Parisian realtor. His dream: To live his golden years in the Dordogne region with a little barn full of geese to force-feed. He claims to “speak goose” and will feed his geese any time…just drop by, so I added him to our guidebook.

After a few days in the Dordogne, where farmers in the markets are evangelical about their foie gras and constantly passing out little goose-liver sandwiches — and where every meal seems to start with a foie-gras course — I always leave with strong need for foie gras detox.


38 Replies to “Well Fed-Ex Geese”

  1. as a traveler i have always felt a strong connection to birds; geese in general. they travel thousands and thousands of miles in their lives only to be trapped, have their wings cut (perhaps the equivalent of having your passport taken away), force-fed corn, and then cooked up and fed to the salivating masses. it seems a sad waste to me. i understand the need for tradition, and also the need for livelihood; however, just like bull-fighting, it is heartbreaking in more ways than i can communicate.

  2. Wow! Some folks might get upset, but it is an honest, candid look at what goes into the fancy dishes at the restaurants…and sandwhiches…ewww. Very interesting! Keep on traveling, Rick!

  3. Rick,
    I went to the Dordogne in 2000 based on your recommendation. It was amazing, and every meal seemed to be better than the rest. Thanks for your insight into the making of foie gras, it was really interesting and nice to see that they treat the animals as well as possible.

    Happy travels!


  4. People talk of these geese as if they are these cute little cuddly animals (like Koala Bears). I am sure the domesticated birds are docile, but I got chased by gaggles of these animals as I walked to work and back everyday. They are vicious, attack little children and have even killed small dogs here in the central Indiana area. On top of that, they are government protected. The la gavage sounds like these geese actually enjoy it. Humans are omnivores, that is the way god made us (Christ himself ate animals AND botanical foods). To fatten and kill these animals humanely is fine (have you ever seen how hogs and cattle are slaughtered here in the US)? You would think these geese have a life of luxury. Keep up the fantastic work, Rick.

  5. Well, I think this story fits better under the headline for the last place you visited. It’s great to read of places we plan to reach ourselves soon, but it’s also interesting to read of places we now know we don’t have to go. Actually, I’m not being fair because I don’t eat liver of any sort. Keep up the good work Rick, don’t let us put you in a shoebox – continue to amaze us.

  6. First UNESCO and now the Ducks

    I’m in total agreement with John (above). I thought the BLOG was quieting down in the last while which was a little disappointing.

    This item on the ducks, especially with some of the descriptions included, have really livened things up again.

    You are definitely surprising us Rick and I feel like I would not be reading a lot of your writings in any other guidebook or from any other professional guidebook writer.

    My impression is you are having a lot of fun right now with the BLOG Rick.

  7. Rick keeps travel funnily interesting! He has a sense of humor putting the bird farm here. I’ve never easten goose liver. Bread and peanut butter in my suitcase would do me until I got home. :)

  8. The Dordogne River, near the little town of La Coquille, France, was filled with people, including a young lady who would have been considered exceptionally gorgeous even if she hadn’t lost most of her swim suit (but not as gorgeous as my Sweetie!). A truck would take a load of people up the river, then the boats and passengers returned to this spot. Or boaters would float down the river from here, the truck would bring them back. Either way, it looked like fun, and the river was filled with people and boats the Sunday afternoon we were there. As we have seen other places, the bridge across the Dordogne River at this spot was a narrow one-lane bridge that was one-way for the vehicle that got there first. Works just fine. We didn’t see any sign of a problem, traffic on both sides of the river cooperated. (1995)

  9. Maybe this is a bit premature, but I’ll be interested to see if you (Rick) find France to be a better and friendlier nation, now that they finally have a good leader (Sarkozy). Good to see the anti-USA, anti-Bush, pro-Islamists, pro-socialist French leaders out of power! Our French friends have finally woken up! Viva la France! Viva Sarkozy!

  10. Ditto, Allen. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am not saying we (USA) are always right…but we aren’t always wrong either. I remember Rick mentioning a lady in France who stopped what she was doing to acknowledge the ETTBD group and giving thanks for our country saving them from the Nazis. My how people of other countries seem to forget that when mentioning all of our faults.
    Good work, Allen.

  11. Great read Rick. Now this is something you do not get to read about in other guidebooks. I do not like goose livers, and I do not care what ranchers of human food do to produce food. Whether it is farmed pigs, cattle, ducks, geese, salmon, shrimp, etc I do not care how they treat the animals. I do care about wildlife and especially large wildlife. Unfortunatly the French, Germans, British, Irish, Scots, exterminated most of the large wild animals long, long ago. And I doubt they will be as progressive as America in reintroducing wild animals into their mountains and remaining few decent habitat areas. Wolves in the Alps anyone? It would add a whole new eliment to hiking in the Jungfrau!

  12. Great read Rick. Now this is something you do not get to read about in other guidebooks. I do not like goose livers, and I do not care what ranchers of human food do to produce food. Whether it is farmed pigs, cattle, ducks, geese, salmon, shrimp, etc I do not care how they treat the animals. I do care about wildlife and especially large wildlife. Unfortunatly the French, Germans, British, Irish, Scots, exterminated most of the large wild animals long, long ago. And I doubt they will be as progressive as America in reintroducing wild animals into their mountains and remaining few decent habitat areas. Wolves in the Alps anyone? It would add a whole new eliment to hiking in the Jungfrau!

  13. Allen-

    Those of us who don’t agree with you (and, I’d imagine, many of those who do) would appreciate it if you’d keep this board free of political commentary.


  14. I quite disagree with Jason (above)…this is Rick’s blog and his travels and experiences are perceived through his values, beliefs, and ideals. His guide books would be just another version of the “go here and see this” variety there is already too much of if he did not put his personal angle on them. In his books, he does not sermonize; if he chooses to add those comments to his personal blog, that is his perogative.

    I took my girls to Europe 2 summers ago (London and Paris…and yes we were there for the London bombings) and Rick’s books and philosophy allowed me to share some amazing experiences with them when they were 9 & 12…and now they are asking when are we going to Rome! He & I must have done something right to get them so inspired.

    Keep including your personal opinions, Rick.

  15. Although the geese appear to be calm, and perhaps they are, this is certainly not the way geese would eat had they the choice. Further, it really is inhumane to force-feed anything, however delightful the product. It is our responsibility as thinking humans to see that animals under our control do not suffer if we can prevent it, and we can surely live without fois gras, produced this way. Production of fois gras is illegal in some countries, and I look forward to the day when it is illegal everywhere. (and the same goes for bullfighting, cockfighting, dogfighting and kangaroo boxing–you could add dwarf-tossing to the list as well). Cruelty for the sake of gastronomic satisfaction or amusement is unethical. Alice

  16. Glad you got the chance to actually visit a foie gras farm. I live in Chicago and it’s been banned since last summer (much to my chagrin). I understand the argument of animal-rights activists, but the reality is that humans eat meat…lots of it. Unfortunately most Americans never get to see the way foie gras geese are raised (quite humanely compared to their American commercial-poultry cousins) so they miss out on the culture and tradition that surrounds this delicacy. No matter if you believe in the right to eat foie or not – more important to discover the culture that surrounds it and accept it for the fascinating thing that it is.

  17. Wow! That was a very enjoyable blog entry! Thanks Rick for lighting up my hum drum work day!

  18. Rick,

    glad you continue to report on the world the way it really is, not some Bowlderized version tidied up for American sensitivities. While I don’t eat foie gras, it IS a part of the national cuisine in France. Visitors who want to understand France, become “temporary Europeans” as you put it in the guide books, need to look openly and honestly at each country they visit.

    To go a bit off the blog topic (but I don’t see from the website how to send feedback) — I just got the Travel newsletter by email and see that you have redesigned the convertible bag. One question I have, since I’ve taken a previous version of the bag on 2 trips. Why don’t the sides come up higher? The zipper seems to be in about the middle of the thickness of the bag, so when I am packing it I have a balancing act trying to keep everything on top of the bag until I can close it.

  19. Thanks Alice and g, I totally agree with you both, and thanks for having the courage to say it and saying it so well. I think the key is that we’re “thinking” humans. Eventually, maybe in hundreds of years, humans will realize that we don’t need to eat animals at all.

  20. For all of you vegetarians, I am sorry you are all offended by this topic. Perhaps after seeing the title of Ricks’ entry on this subject, you all should’ve skipped this one. WELL FED EX-GEESE can’t turn out well for the goose, so why bother? God made animals FOR FOOD. Jesus was God, he ate lots of fish. It started all the way in Genesis. Of course some animals are fun to watch and whatever, but they were made to be eaten. I will take Gods’ word and His example in Christ over your opinions.

    Good Day to you,

  21. because i probably will never get outside of my state much less my country your show let’s me feel like i have. my son is in france right now. he’s in an “education abroad” program at college. he’s been very excited all spring waiting to go. his approach is to emerse himself while he’s there hoping to soak up as much as he can. his plan is “animal biology” but, you never know, he may be the next rick steve.

  22. Jason:

    Asking Rick if France is a friendlier place, now that they finally have a good, PRO-American leader, is NOT injecting politics! It’s a real question. So Jason, if you don’t agree with me, then can I assume you wish France (and other nations) had leaders who hate America, hate Bush, hate Israel, hate free market capitalism, love socialism, and love the Islamist terrorists? Is THAT where you stand? Personally, I love America, love France, and I really like this Sarkozy dude!! Viva Sarkozy!

  23. A Weight Watcher goose pate is available at the Coop Grocery Store in Murren, Switzerland. I’m not sure how they made a low fat pate! The Coop has more WW food items than any grocery store in Oregon.

  24. Very interesting blog entry.

    The subsequent postings on France’s political policies is off the subject of goose livers just a tad, though. If you expect French to continue to be grateful for our assistance in WWII, maybe you start it off by thanking them for the help during the Revolutionary War. Just a suggestion.

  25. Heather, ASSISTING FRANCE? We saved their rear ends. The ONLY countries who stopped the Nazis were us, the UK, and Russia. Saving a hapless country that has been completely dominated is a bit more than assistance. I am unclear how someone goes into a situation, does all of the work to free them, and you claim it is assisting. I have never read of the french military liberating ANYONE in World War 2….let alone themselves. That being said….Good point on the Revolutionary War….Touche.

  26. Thanks Rick. I raised ducks as pets as a kid, and there is just nothing a duck likes to do more than eat. They eat with such gusto, abandon and sheer willingness to wolf down just about anything that I always found simply amazing. As such, when I first heard about force-feeding geese to fatten their livers I laughed out loud at the mental vision of what my ducks would have probably thought “duck heaven”. Look at the geese around the feeder in the picture – do they look terrorized? No way. I continue to eat mass-produced meat products even with the knowledge and belief that an animal forced to live in a meat-factory environment suffers at some level. But anything can be done inhumanely – you need only note how we humans treat each other to confirm this. But given a context in which a farm animal is to be slaughtered anyway, I’m quite confident that force-feeding a goosed raised in a bucolic and tranquil environment is far from inherently abusive!

  27. Thanks Chris. It is nice to get someone with experience in this area to back Rick up with more of the truth. Good work. Chris

  28. What is scary here aside from the fact that abusing animals is somehow acceptable is that people like Chris actually still believe in God. And with such conviction too…unbelievable.

  29. Rick, We were in the Dordogne in May and saw you and Steve and two others at a cafe in Sarlat-le-Canada Sunday morning the 20th of May. We did not bother you, but were hoping that seeing you there meant there might be an upcoming episode including Sarlat. We always enjoy your insights. Michelle

  30. How is consuming animals any different than consuming plants? How can anyone say that eating only plants is any more humanitarian than eating animals as well? Does the carrot feel no pain when it’s ripped from the warm ground it so happily grows in? There are plenty of people who talk to their plants and swear that they are sentient, intelligent beings just as animals are… the fact is, we don’t know for sure. So what are we going to do, give up eating everything entirely, because we’re afraid of the ‘politics’? It’s ridiculous. The animal and plant world does not recognize such politics. And it is no less cruel than the human world. I am constantly amazed at human beings capacity to forget this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating foie gras. And I can’t wait to have some on my next visit!

  31. Wow, how disappointing to read this post. Force-feeding ducks and geese massive amounts of grain-about 1/4 their body weight in just a few seconds, every day, for several weeks, creates painful bloat in their stomachs. Many birds choke to death on their own regurgitated vomit. It is also not uncommon for the birds to experience ruptured blood vessels in their throats-some literally bleed to death. As their livers expand and their lungs become compressed, the birds have great trouble breathing, moving or even standing. We here in Chicago are far from alone in making the humane decision to ban foie gras. Countries which have banned it include Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Finland. Veterinarians worldwide have condemned the force-feeding of birds for foie gras, as have religious leaders including Pope Benedict XVI.

  32. I am very interested in the current heated debate surrounding the production of fois gras from geese in France. This is a question that periodically raises its head, and I have yet to hear a rational voice amongst all the emotional opinions being aired. Some time ago I therefore phoned Du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware, and spoke to the senior animal pathologist there, who would be one of the most highly trained veterinarians in the USA if not the world. He turned out to be a no-nonsense Aussie, who fielded my question about the force-feeding of geese with the following comments, (as nearly as I can remember): “The geese obviously don’t mind being force fed, as you will notice that instead of running away from the farmer when he appears with the grain-bucket and funnel, they gather around to be fed. After all, can you imagine trying to catch each goose in a flock once a day and force a funnel into its gullet? There would certainly be an element of danger in that activity if the goose wished to resist. I expect that the goose feels like you or me after eating christmas dinner with all the trimmings and plum duff afterward. Now if you wanted to stop cruelty to animals then you should prevent people fishing with a hook and line. Don’t let anyone tell you THAT doesn’t hurt. You can perhaps imagine having a fish-hook lodged in your soft palate, and then pulled out.” I have no personal attachment to any particular argument in the fois gras debate, but just offer this as a factual and impartial viewpoint from a personal well-placed to know about what animals feel or suffer.

  33. I am sorry to have to read this. I suggest you volunteer to take the place of the geese for a few years and then write a review of your experiences. When your liver has reached a state of disease and is grotesquely enlarged, then tell me how you feel. Stay in the US please, don’t visit Europe again.

  34. I’m concerned about the mistreating of animals too, but those geese were far better treated for than the sickly cows, pigs and chickens in our horrific industrial food system. The American food industry is what you should protest. Not only is it horrifically inhumane, it’s unhealthy for you and the planet.

  35. If you ban foie gras, you’re going to have a lot of disappointed geese flying around. They love gavage; they’re greedy birds. They practically swallow the tube at feeding time.

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